Thursday, August 30, 2012

Credentialism Runs Riot

One of the most absurd aspects of the last few decades has been credentialism: "Overemphasis on diplomas or degrees in giving jobs or conferring social status."  Yes, there are jobs where there is really a strong case for requiring that a person demonstrate a formal education, such as medicine, but there are vast numbers of jobs where this is emphatically not the case.  If no one's life, health, or liberty is at stake, and where you can either test someone's skills, or the costs of hiring someone to find out if they know what they are doing is low, then there is no reason to require formal credentials as a condition of employment.  Hire a carpenter; if he produces crummy cabinets, fire him.  If he produces good work, you keep him.

At the end of class last night, I overheard two students discussing job searches.  One explained that she applied for a job answering phones. She was informed that she was not qualified, because she did not have a four year college degree.  To answer phones?

Unfortunately, I find her story very easy to believe.  When workers are in such gross oversupply relative to the number of jobs, employers use credentialism as a way to winnow the pool of applicants.  If the economy gets much more Obaminable, I could see a job answering phones requiring a master's degree, just to get the stack of resumes down from 1000 to 100.


  1. Years ago a friend of mine wouldn't employ people who misspelled "veterinary".

    That's not as daft as it sounds since he was reading applications for jobs in a College of Veterinary Medicine.

  2. Concerning your student -- a college degree today is like a high school diploma to the last generation. It pretty much guarantees that you know how to read at a basic level. That's all.

  3. Isn't the other reason, and one relevant before the Great Recession, that a high school diploma is no longer a useful signal?

  4. I'll second that! The other day I was looking at the classifieds and saw a job as a front desk receptionist for a doctor's office. The ad listed a bachelor's as preferred.

    This is a double insult because we have a highly respected two-year college in town, where a chunk of the professors moonlight from the state four-year university.

  5. And to top it off the job probably only pays ~$10 per hour! A masters to make that--HA HA!

    I guess Obama could say he is helping all of his pals with ethnic, gender, social studies, etc degrees....

  6. This credentialism is largely due to Griggs Power vs. Duke, which held that (in practice) employers cannot test job applicants. Therefore employers force applicants to distinguish themselves by earning a college degree, a very time-consuming and expensive alternative. So the poor and blacks have been greatly harmed by this court case.

  7. And so we end up with:
    1) people studying what has little benefit to the economy (they just need a degree)
    2) student debt and the accompanying inflation in college costs due to too much money being out there
    3) diploma mills
    4) mass job dissatisfaction and turnover

  8. Further, unless you have a degree Labor dept, rules state you may not be allowed to work in a salaried position, you MUST work hourly and be eligible for overtime.

  9. Stan, I know plenty of people, myself included, who worked in salaried professional positions and did not have a degree.

  10. Stan, are you sure about that? Never heard about that before.

  11. Perhaps the federal government had such a rule. I had a number of salaried positions as a software engineer before I went back to get school to get my bachelor's. Now I have a master's, and I work for a state government...and I am an hourly employee.

  12. As far back as the early 90s I can recall places using a Bachelor's as a filter. You want a college degree for a part-time job as an adoption counselor at an animal shelter? As others have said above, it's partly because a degree doesn't mean as much and partly as a filter.

  13. It was a rule at Lucent, but I was told that was due to their union contract.

    It really sucked to be an Ascend Communications salaried employee without a college degree after Lucent bought it. If the union became aware of you, they would file and win a slam-dunk grievance, so everything was done to keep these employees hidden, like not giving them raises or promotions. The ones I talked to in that position were ... not happy.

    I was rather ... perturbed to learn that my boss, who immediate left the company after hiring me for one of their spinoffs (Agere, I think), had slipped me into the company under the radar. Didn't matter much in the end, my unit, which was building a system essential for the company's survival, was canned not too long after I left (this was in 2001 when their headcount went from 106,000 to 35,000).

  14. The issue is with interpretation of the (so-called) Fair Labor Standards Act.

    Union activists want to maximize their potential to organize within occupations that are categorized as hourly (non-exempt) workers.

    Or the government is kindly giving us protection against not being paid overtime.

    Some larger companies, through a combination of external pressure and frankly self-serving reasons (viz. cutting pay rates) went through fairly aggressive recategorizations of various job titles, with many people ending up in lower-paid non-exempt titles, e.g. technician rather than engineer, then no stock options etc.

    See DoL Fact Sheet #17D: Exemption for Professional Employees Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

    [numbering is mine]

    1. [compensation rate rule]
    2. ... performance of work requiring advanced knowledge ... predominantly intellectual in character ...
    3. The advanced knowledge must be in a field of science or learning; and
    4. The advanced knowledge must be customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction.

    ... "The best evidence of meeting this requirement is by having the appropriate academic degree."

    There is a loophole for "computer-related occupations" but there also is pressure to interpret this as applying only to functions like network administration, and not to software development.

  15. w.r.t. Stan / anon / asdf, my reading is that "advanced knowledge" CAN be acquired by a combination of experience and "intellectual instruction".

    If, however, you make yourself think like an HR person for a moment (after donning a cranial implosion shield), it's easier to just require the degree than to face the possibility of having to construct a specific defense for the classifications of a few outlier employees, should questions arise during an audit.

    A lot of this also echoes "qualified personnel" clauses in government contracts, in industries where government work has been prevalent.

    FLSA, Sarbanes Oxley, and the FASB/Buffett perspective on stock options, all undermine what used to be uniquely good about American business, and desperately need to be taken out and shot.